Virtual Worlds: a social, not technological, phenomenon

To begin, a quote from Tom Boellstorff, Professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine:

The metaverse’s history indicates that social immersion is the metaverse’s foundation.

Tom Boellstorff

Tom is a bona fide expert in virtual worlds, and I recommend reading the whole article.1

Through his work, he has spent a tremendous amount of time in Second Life, the most notorious of the non-game virtual worlds, including two years doing field-work for the book ‘Coming of Age in Second Life‘.

The bottom line in his article for Fast Company is that meaningful immersion is achieved socially, rather than technologically. It is not about VR headsets, it is about networks of relationships.

Put another way:

Humans are at the centre of it. Not technology.

Web3 – learning from science fiction

If you have spent any time at all in environments like Second Life, or close equivelents in the MMO genre like Utima Online, World of Warcraft or EVE, that sentiment should ring true.

None of those games have cutting-edge graphics or VR capability, but they do have immensely strong social dynamics. They are compelling, immersive experiences because you are in a living world, populated by real people. That they act like real people is important, whether they look like real people is not.

Put yet another way:

A cyberspace is defined more by the interactions among the actors within it than by the technology with which it is implemented.

The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat

The social environment of virtual worlds stands in stark contrast to platforms like Facebook. Virtual worlds enable authentic relationships, whereas what we refer to as ‘social media’ today largely trivialises relationships by reducing them to basic forms of engagement.2

That social element is the mainstay of retention for games like World of Warcraft. It is not uncommon for an individual will maintain their subscription because of the community (their circle of friends, their guild or clan mates) and the strength of their identity (recognition, reputation, notoriety) they have built in relation to the story of the world.3

Three pillars for virtual worlds

If you examine the social dynamics which drive virtual worlds, there are three critical factors:

  • Identity – Individual expression.
  • Community – Relationships.
  • Story – Context and purpose.

That trio ecompass absolutely everything required in a successful virtual world. Not graphical prowess. Not VR. Not financial incentives. Not elaborate mechanics. Importantly, while all three factors are critical, both community and story are dependent on identity.

It is difficult to overstate just how important that concept of identity has become in the relatively narrow context of virtual worlds. How crucial it is to their success, and how much it contributes to a rewarding player experience.

There’s no reason for it to stop there. If you were able to design your personal identity from the ground up, in a more expressive (or more discreet) format, ignoring norms and conventions, why wouldn’t you? This concept is destined to spread further, as our online life diverges from our offline life and we gravitate towards the format which best fits the context.4

What we’re circling back to is the question of identity in ‘the metaverse’; how these principles for individual virtual worlds apply to our entire virtual existence: what will identity look like in a Web3 world?

Put another way: what do the concepts of Identity, Community and Story look like at a meta level which spans multiple projects, platforms and mediums?

How can a ‘metaidentity’ enable a new model for the web?

What form does a ‘metacommunity’ take for Web3?

Could there be a ‘metanarrative’ for this new context?

  1. There’s an interesting semantic argument here, about whether metaverses are virtual worlds. I’m personally of the opinion that ‘the metaverse’ is a more nebulous description for whole digital aspect to our existence, centered around our digital identity. Virtual worlds are more specific sandbox environments for exploration and socialising in a digital environment. []
  2. Anecdotally, I know at least 3 couples who married after meeting in an MMO. I’ve never heard of anyone getting married after meeting on Facebook. []
  3. It is also not uncommon for that virtual identity to persist outside of the game, both across other mediums and also for many years after the game servers my close. []
  4. For people whose status, credibility or legacy is rooted in their real identity, they may choose to continue using their real identity as their digital avatar. For others, there is an increasing trend to invest in a cross-platform virtual identity. It was evident in the gaming communities of the early 2000s, and it is perhaps even more common today amonst Web3 enthusiasts. []

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